Comment

The UK needs to organise itself better to influence after Brexit

Jill Rutter / Apr 2024

Image: Shutterstock

Just over seven years ago, on 29 March 2017, then Prime Minister Theresa May kicked off the formal process of Brexit by triggering Article 50.

The next four years were full of frenzied negotiating activity, determining the manner of the UK exit and the shape of the UK and EU’s new relationship. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the Withdrawal Agreement set not just the parameters for the relationship, but also established a plethora of specialised committees reporting to a Partnership Council to manage the relationship.

The UK was treading where no country had gone before. From being a big insider country, whose voice mattered in the development of EU positions and EU law, informed as of right about what was going on, with a high profile UK Commissioner, a significant phalanx of MEPs and a judge on the European Court; to being a geographically close but legally distant “third country”. The UK Representation in Brussels became the UK Mission to the EU; the Permanent Secretary-level Permanent Representative was downgraded by one level to a Director General-level Ambassador, and staff numbers were cut back.

Working out how to be effective after this change of status and change of relationship is just one of the challenges facing the UK state in adapting to Brexit – the subject of a recently published report from UK in a Changing Europe. As our report shows, taking on new functions and responsibilities and developing new policy directions remains very much still a work in progress. That progress was hampered by political turbulence, ministerial churn and an unwillingness to confront some of the necessary choices.

But nothing was as badly affected by politics as the diplomatic reset required in Brussels. The row over the UK’s unilateral actions on the Northern Ireland Protocol and the threats contained in the Internal Market bill pushed the UK-EU relationship into the freezer. That made the task of Brussels based UK diplomats (and British lobbyists) much harder.

Rishi Sunak can claim credit on the UK side for the unthawing that allowed the negotiation of the Windsor Framework. But subsequent developments showed that even with a more positive relationship, substantive change could be a long, drawn out progress. It took another six months to conclude the UK’s association to Horizon Europe. And the extension of the grace periods on rules of origin for electric vehicles went right up to the wire even though both UK and EU car manufacturers were lobbying on the importance of the change.

The Partnership Council, which sits at the apex of the TCA, has not met since March 2023 – despite the intention to have meetings every six months. The specialised committees meet more regularly but there is not much sense from outside of great impetus behind them. Indeed officials contrast the agility of cooperation with the EU in areas where there are no formal mechanisms – such as Ukraine and sanctions – with the clunkiness of the formalised arrangements.

But the real task for British diplomats in Brussels lies less in ensuring that the formal mechanisms work well than in ensuring the UK is across the forward EU agenda, and can influence effectively before ideas turn into proposals and thus into laws which might have implications for the UK. This far, the UK’s influencing strategy appears much less developed than that of the most effective third country operators in Brussels – like Chile, New Zealand, and Switzerland.

It also requires much more central coordination back in London – where intelligence from Brussels can be fed back and its ramifications for the UK worked out – around what the possible implications are not just for UK regulation and potential future divergence, and the impact on businesses trading on both sides of the Channel, but also on the UK internal market and, most critically, the impact on Northern Ireland.

The Democratic Unionists’ triggering of a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly on the application of the EU’s extension of GIs to craft producers, where the motion to apply failed to get cross-community consent, which creates a real headache for the UK government, shows that any EU change has the potential to blow up into a litmus test of Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. The UK government now has to decide how to cope with the fallout of that vote, making relations more difficult with either the EU or the unionists.

When the UK was in the EU it had very effective central coordination machinery, based in the Cabinet Office, to prepare for upcoming Council meetings. That was dispensed with after Brexit and managing relations with the EU was transferred to the Foreign Office. This, or the next, government needs urgently to reinvent a central capacity to keep up with (better still, ahead of) developments in the EU which could have important economic and political impacts back in the UK.

 

Jill Rutter

Jill Rutter

April 2024

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